The way to real chili

Dear Lincoln,

There may be no more iconic “guy food” than chili. But unfortunately, recipes for chili these days are only a pale imitation of the real thing.

Here’s the deal: Chili should be made with chiles, not bottled chili powder. Sure, chili powder makes the recipe easy: You dump the powder in the pot and you’re done. But then you miss the point: the spiky, sweet-and-sour heat of real chiles — which should be the basis of this stew. After all, it’s actually called chili con carne — that is, “chiles with meat.”

So I want to teach you the right way to make real, stick-to-your-ribs chili.

You will have people tell you that real chili doesn’t have beans. From my standpoint, it sure does. Beans add plenty of heft and flavor. What chili doesn’t have is tomatoes. Canned tomatoes and jarred chili powder are for the amateurs. Canned tomatoes were introduced into recipes because they replaced the heft of actual chiles when the dish got streamlined with chili powder.

So let’s get back to the basics. Here’s how to make the best pot of chili you’ve ever had — eight servings, 1 1/4 cups each. Plus, lots of ways to customize to your taste.

Step 1: Stem and seed eight dried chiles
Look for dried chiles in cellophane packages. Most likely, you’ll find them in the produce section near the dried mushrooms. If not, then check in the Mexican food aisle, or on a rack in the store’s shelves near the canned beans. Better yet, head to Fresh Market or Whole Foods, they’ll have dozens of choices and the freshest chilies.

Here’s what you’ll probably find:
New Mexican chiles. Long, narrow chiles, often oxblood-red. Either hot or mild — your choice.

Anchos. Actually, dried poblanos: a little wider than New Mexicans, moderately hot, with raisin and coffee accents.

Mulatos. Like anchos but a little milder, even sweeter, lots of chocolate finish.

Pasillas. Long, thin chiles: quite crimson, herby and moderately hot.

Guajillos. A narrow black chile: grassy with sweeter undertones.

I suggest you try it first with eight New Mexican chiles. To be more adventurous, use a mixture of kinds, making your own signature blend.

By the way, when you’re picking through the packages at the store, look for pliable, colorful chiles, not broken or dusty, and no mold at the stems.

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At home, break the chiles open over a trash can and toss out the dry seeds. Snap off and discard the stems as well.

Step 2: Toast and soak the chiles
First, bring a teakettle or saucepan of water to a boil over high heat.

Meanwhile, tear skins of seeded and stemmed chiles into large bits. Put these bits in a dry skillet set over medium heat. Toss over heat until they’re fragrant and warmed up, 3 to 4 minutes.

Place these pieces in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Set aside to soak for 15 minutes.

For even more flavor, add up to 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 to 2 teaspoons dried marjoram, 1 teaspoon mild smoked paprika and/or up to 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves with the other spices.

Step 3: Make a chile paste
Drain soaked chiles in a colander set in the sink. Place them in a food processor fitted with a chopping blade or a large blender.
Add 3 quartered garlic cloves,
1 tablespoon dried oregano,
1 teaspoon ground cumin,
1 teaspoon salt,
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon.
Snap on the lid and process or blend to a grainy paste. Scrape the inside of the canister a couple times to make sure everything takes a spin on the blades.

If the mixture doesn’t blend easily, add a couple tablespoons of water. Some dried chiles have less moisture in them because of long storage, so they won’t process or blend as well as others.

(It’s Not Just a Paste for Chili)
This dried chile paste can be mixed with broth and a cooked chopped onion in a blender to make an enchilada sauce. Or mix a little vinegar with it (perhaps 1/4 cup) and use it as a marinade for grilled shrimp or flank steak.

Step 4: Cook the aromatics
Heat 4 teaspoons olive oil in a large pot or skillet (I prefer to use a large skillet) over medium heat.
Add 2 cups aromatics like chopped yellow onions, chopped shallots, or washed and sliced leeks (white and pale-green parts only).
Also add up to 2 cups chopped vegetables: stemmed, seeded and chopped bell peppers, thinly sliced celery, thinly sliced carrots, or thinly sliced mushrooms. Stir over heat until veggies soften a bit, about 5 minutes.

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Step 5: Toast the chile paste
Scrape every drop of that paste out of the food processor or the blender canister and into the pot. Stir over heat for 1 minute.

One warning: Chili oils can volatilize and burn your eyes. Get a long-handled wooden spoon and stand back while you stir.

Step 6: Brown some beef
Cut 1 1/2 pounds beef top loin into small pieces, about 1/2-inch each. Add these to the pot, and stir them around until they lose their raw, red color, about 5 minutes.

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Step 7: Make it all come together
In a slow cooker pour in 3 cups fat-free, reduced-sodium beef broth and 2 1/2 cups drained and rinsed canned beans. Choose any bean you like: black, pinto, kidney, pink, even black-eyed peas. I like to use a combination of beans. Add all the other ingredients and cook at medium heat for about 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally.

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Like a Thicker Chili?
Stir 1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal into the pot right at the end of the cooking process. Uncover and simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve in a bowl topped with shredded cheese and a dollop of sour cream, or in a tortilla with shredded cheese and sour cream, both ways are excellent!
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That, Lincoln is the way to make real chili.

I love you little buddy, Puppa.

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